The Dutch Reformed Church (DRC) Somerset West, Western Cape, is the twelfth oldest DRC in South Africa, recently celebrating its 200th birthday in 2019. This dynamic congregation is led by Rev Johan van Niekerk, who has been the minister there since 2007.
As the demographics of Somerset West have changed and land use has shifted, the church structure has found itself in the heart of the city’s business district. With the founding of two other DRC congregations in Somerset West, the church has found itself faced with the challenge of a shrinking congregation size and an increasing average age of the congregants – though efforts to attract younger members in greater numbers have been successful over the past few years. In recent years the congregation has come to be popularly known as the Omgeegemeente, which is Afrikaans for “the passionately caring community.” “Because of who we believe we are,” says Johan, “it is impossible not to love everybody unconditionally. A loving community tends to attract people.”
Johan grew up in a fairly conservative part of the rural Western Cape and didn’t have a history of really having to openly confront people with alternative sexual orientations. “Naïve as I was, I didn’t have a specific point of view of such people. As far as I can remember I didn’t have a problem accepting all people, no matter who they are, as human beings just like myself.” Though he never had to change his point of view radically, his thinking has shifted and grown over time. He thinks of his journey as a growth process, where he gradually became more and more aware of people with differing sexual orientations and had to get clear about his own thinking and beliefs.
A focus on unconditional love
Johan relies on scripture for guidance on how to treat others who may be different than himself and the established “norms”. “Thinking about how we as Christians are supposed to treat people, I came to the conclusion that it is much easier to treat all people the same way – that is with the unconditional love of God – than to try and to decide all the time who is worthy of God’s love and who is not. That would place me in a situation of judging people and not loving all people unconditionally as is expected of us.”
Johan’s non-confrontational approach at first steered him away from addressing the issue head-on, wanting to avoid causing unnecessary conflict and division. “We market our congregation as a caring community that opens our doors and hearts to all people, trying to give them a spiritually secure place of worship and love.” He specifically looked to Romans 13:8 as guidance for leading his congregation: “Owe nothing to anyone except to love and seek the best for one another; for he who [unselfishly] loves his neighbour has fulfilled the [essence of the] law [relating to one’s fellowman].”
He also encourages his congregants to have compassion and hold space for others who may have differing viewpoints while continuing to love them, as is called for in Romans 14:5 “One person regards one day as better [or more important] than another, while another regards every day [the same as any other]. Let everyone be fully convinced (assured, satisfied) in his own mind.” “That means that as Christians we may differ from each other on certain issues, but we must give each other the space to differ without stopping to love each other. In the end, each one of us must be at peace with what they believe before God.”
Contextualising the DRC synod’s decisions in community
In 2015 when the DRC’s general synod took the landmark decision to recognise and bless gay marriage, Johan’s congregation was forced to tackle and debate the issue more head-on. “I had a meeting with the church council, the leaders who represent the congregation. During this meeting, we studied the Bible with the focus on what God expects of us as His body and love community. Together, we had to admit that there are a lot of things that we, as mere human beings, can’t understand, like for instance why there are people of diverse sexual orientations – created like that by God. But luckily we know God, who knows the answers to all our questions. He can give us peace without having to understand everything – according to Psalm 131. We were also reminded that we are not allowed to judge other people and are only supposed to love all people without condition – like we are loved by God. Only God may judge – and He is righteous. Our church leaders were happy and pleased that in the light of God’s Word, we don’t need to decide on what is right or wrong in this matter, but only need to love all and letting them experience God’s love through us.”
The congregation accepted the decision of the church leaders with the minimum amount of conflict. “We can therefore say that our congregation is all-inclusive to all people and the doors are wide open for everyone who wants to come and join in our fellowship.”
Yet the pushback from many congregations that led to the reversal of that decision in 2016, and the back and forth by the general synod since then has left a lot of questions and uncertainty for his congregants. “I think they are frustrated because the majority of churches are scared of making clear decisions. But they are confident in the point of view taken by our congregation and are satisfied that they don’t have to debate the issue yet again.”
IAM’s support helps further the conversation
IAM became connected with the congregation through an IAM staff member, Alida Bergman, who is also a congregant. In April 2018, IAM facilitated a discussion with about 40 members of the church around former IAM staff member Retha Benade’s book, “Gelowige en Gay.” IAM’s Michelle Boonzaaier facilitated the discussion, speaking about IAM’s work and the resources that are available. Johan reflected, “Organising an event where we could talk openly, helped transforming our members further.” He and his colleague Fourie Roussouw took the conversation forward from this initial conversation with continued support from IAM over the subsequent years.
Johan takes the position that he will address specific topics or issues as they emerge within the congregation, rather than forcing discussions that could become divisive. “When there seems to be tension on a specific issue or topic, we will put in an effort to discuss it. With everybody happy and feeling welcome in the congregation, it is not always necessary to put topics on the table that can cause unnecessary conflict. We had our first baby of a gay couple baptised about a year ago without making any issue of it. The objection by a single member was handled without any problem and it was accepted by the rest of the members. I believe that it is important that everybody needs to be handled in the same way.” IAM is always on hand as a resource should Johan feel the need for additional support or assistance with an issue that arises.
Guidance for other church leadership exploring inclusion in their congregations
The path that Johan and his congregation have been on over the years has not been an easy one. The biggest challenge he has faced has been the strict readings of scripture and narrow interpretations that it leads to. “Many believers tend to read the Bible in a fundamentalistic way without the correct interpretation and understanding. This causes them to think they may (or must) judge people who think and understand issues in different ways than themselves. It is not always easy to help them change the way they read and understand the Bible.”
His advice to others who are facing the same challenges is clear. “I think the best advice is to NOT fall into the trap of debating what is right or wrong but to stick to what we do understand – what God expects of us as believers. Sometimes it is best to admit that as human beings, even theologians, we do not have all the answers. This means that there is always a point on our journey where we must let God be God, admitting that there are things that only God knows the answer to. Let’s stick to what we understand and know for sure – and that is to keep on loving and welcoming all people without condition, like Jesus.”
When reflecting on this journey, he says “It is my privilege to help believers hear the Lord teaching them through His word as an instrument in His hands. It is also my privilege and honour to see the Lord changing people’s lives. To Him the glory and honour!